TOC Ready Room 24 August 2022: Notes on the Boxes of Mar-a-Lago; the end of an old order continues

What’s wrong and right with the world.

The big news from the last 48 hours is that the Biden White House actually did know in advance of the Mar-a-Lago raid, and in fact had been involved in the issue of the documents held at Mar-a-Lago since at least April of 2022 (and probably earlier).  So the original claim that the Biden White House didn’t know about it was false.

That point has been gone over vigorously since it came out Monday night.  But the latest information on the Mar-a-Lago/classified information dust-up also confirms my previous discussion of the classification issue (and here).

In addition to that discussion, I offer as preparation an excellent 7-odd minutes with Megyn Kelly and former CIA officer Bryan Dean Wright, which packages a pretty comprehensive overview of the things that matter.

For just a bit more in the weeds, read on.

The most focused comment on the classification issue is that the following is clear from the Archives letter of 10 May 2022:  virtually all the documents from the 15 boxes of material removed from Mar-a-Lago in January are pretty much guaranteed to have been produced by federal agencies.  In other words, they weren’t produced by entities in the Executive Office of the President (EOP); i.e., the National Security Council, the 24-hour watch maintained in the White House complex, the president’s senior advisors.  (See my earlier articles on the classification topic.  For those interested we can have a broader discussion in the comments.)

That matters for two overarching reasons.  One is that it clarifies for us why the Archives is asking questions about the documents and seeking to determine how they’ve been handled.  It’s because most if not all of them were produced outside the EOP, and may be considered subject to the handling requirements of E.O.s 13526 and 12958.

That’s actually a question mark, not a slam-dunk.  We don’t know for sure what caused the Archives to formally express concern about the matter and consult with the Justice Department about it; there may be a political motivation, or there may not.  But the heart of this issue would be the information we’ve already heard about Trump declassifying documents by an apparently informal scheme.  The letter indicates basically that the Archives is seeking a legal opinion on the question.

That’s fair.  Any honest legal opinion will be that no controlling document says the president has to use the rules for documenting declassification laid out in federal agency guidelines.  But the Archives isn’t competent to render that (or another) answer.  Government counsel at a higher level needs to do it.

Here, incidentally, is what the letter described, regarding the 100-odd documents in question (comprising some 700 pages, which is where the number “700” comes from):  “NARA identified items marked as classified national security information, up to the level of Top Secret and including Sensitive Compartmented Information and Special Access Program materials.”

We can assume most of the material was not TS/SCI or SAP-controlled.  But some of it was.  Before speculating further about what that means, here’s the second overarching reason the Archives letter matters.  In clarifying that the agencies produced most if not all of the documents at issue, the letter clarifies that the deficiency of concern is not that the documents were “missing,” or being “withheld” by Trump during their sojourn at Mar-a-Lago.

They couldn’t be.  Copies of the documents have all along been filed where we’d expect to find them:  with the agencies that originated them.

That’s actually an inherent aspect of the quandary the Archives implies it’s in.  The selfsame documents are deemed declassified by the former president, but still extant in their originating agencies’ records with classification markings on them.

What the documents are not, and never were, is “missing.”

Read the letter.  The emphasis on handling of the documents is unmistakable.  For those who want to be outraged on the Archives’ behalf, that’s where to focus.

U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C. National Archives image

The fact is that POTUS is not everyone else in the federal executive.  To say it’s not a good idea to declassify documents informally, without notifying their originating agencies, is a very understandable thing to do.  I agree.  But it simply isn’t the case that POTUS is committing a crime by doing it.  The Archives isn’t looking to nail POTUS 45; it’s seeking guidance on an administrative glitch it encountered in processing presidential archive material.  (It’s DOJ that has the actionable concern about damage to national security.)

We’ve been over that territory before, so let’s move on.  As we do so, I’ll observe that the FBI and DOJ will presumably at some point give their judgment on whether the still-marked but declassified documents at Mar-a-Lago were a national security hazard.  If there’s any truth in them, they’d say at most that the unconventional handling of the documents could have caused damage to national security – although it’s not actually their job to rule on that; it’s POTUS’s – but there’s no evidence that it did.

That would approximate what James Comey was willing to say about Hillary Clinton’s emails, which we know for a fact were actively exposed to foreign intelligence exploitation when Top Secret information was routed through unsecure email servers and comms towers in every hemisphere.

A few more points on Declass-gate

One:  it’s possible some of the documents from the 15 boxes described in the Archives letter were produced in the White House.  I consider it unlikely; at most, it would probably be very few of them.  I seriously doubt any were TS/SCI.  Those would have come from the federal agencies.

Any such documents, however, would be the ones most clearly and incontrovertibly exempt from the classified handling requirements discussed in E.O. 13256 and 12958.  POTUS and VPOTUS can generate classified documents for which no subordinate agency’s declassification rules are controlling.

This exemption factor thus has the effect of canceling out the opposite concern outlined above:  that the documents were produced by federal agencies, and then the agencies’ rules for declassification formalities weren’t followed.

In this instance, meanwhile – documents “made in the EOP” – there would be a legitimate concern about the documents being held at Mar-a-Lago, and a question as to when they’d be handed off to the Archives.  The national records repository indeed was waiting for material that America’s records are incomplete without.

But that’s a low-level concern, as a number of commentators have pointed out.  The bottom line is that in neither instance is there a case for a warrant raid on Mar-a-Lago.

During 8 August 2022 FBI raid, Secret Service agents stand guard at entry access point for Mar-a-Lago, former President Trump’s Palm Beach home.  Via KHOU 11 video, YouTube.

Two:  it’s interesting to note that the scenario being developed for us depends on Trump being in the habit of making off with hard-copy classified documents.  We’re told that he tore things out of intelligence briefings and took them to the residence.

That sounds off-hand like Trump removing things from the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), which is the product that encompasses multiple topics and comes in the door on a regular basis.  (It’s collated at ODNI and largely populated and organized by the CIA.)

But we supposedly had remarkably pertinent information on that very topic during Trump’s term.  It was reported a number of times that he had no patience for reading the PDB, and preferred to engage with his briefers verbally.  The Washington Post had a feature on the subject in 2018, which assured us that the intelligence community had adapted to his style and didn’t emphasize a PDB-reading basis for informing the president.  Other NSC seniors read the PDB – it’s always produced – but Trump wasn’t much engaged with the hard copy.

The same implication would apply to any of his hard-copy briefing material; i.e., single-topic material providing background.  The WaPo report hints at that.

This does leave us to wonder what, exactly, was in those boxes at Mar-a-Lago.  It doesn’t sound like things he would have torn out from briefings.  If he was really interested in hard copy, it’s more likely to have been linked to, say, Russiagate and Spygate.

Squaring the classification of the material – including TS/SCI and SAP – with things that would interest Trump because they related to “Crossfire Hurricane” (Russiagate, Spygate) isn’t necessarily a simple matter either.  Perhaps some of the materials are the ones declassified by Trump and relating to the -Gates, and others weren’t.

One thing is for sure.  If Trump was tearing things out of the PDB, ODNI and CIA at a minimum would have copies of everything.  It’s a good bet that nothing Trump “tore pages” from is actually “missing,” or ever was.

Three:  there was a little side-story about the Zelensky phone call in 2019 that may be pertinent to all this.  It flared up briefly and then died down because it was so stupid.  I wrote about it at the time because of its stupidity (while getting outsized attention), and its need to have the bracing ice-water of reality thrown over it.

A special arrangement?

The story seemed to trace to Alexander Vindman, and briefly was this:  he, or someone, was alarmed that Trump’s office was overclassifying the information from the interaction with Zelensky.  The alarmists were worried that Trump was misusing classification to try to keep information from being accessible to the staffers who, in the alarmists’ view, should normally have such access.

Akexander Vindman (Image: YouTube screen grab)

Now, that’s not their call to make and there was no whistle to legitimately blow on it.  But moving on from that:  the complaint made it pretty clear that information about contacts with Zelensky was being protected behind a compartmented system firewall the aggrieved staffers couldn’t access.

The first reaction to this information about Trump’s office would be that he was determined to keep NSC staffers from leaking the material, as so often happened, in a manner designed to sabotage Trump’s policies.   (A report from Politico tending to corroborate that point emerged shortly thereafter.)

I recall thinking at the time that it sounded as if the Trump front office had created a SAP to protect information from chronic leakers inside the NSC. 

And in hindsight, that doesn’t seem off the wall.  POTUS can create as many SAPs as he wants, whenever he wants.  It’s up to him.  There’s nothing that could limit his use of that classification option to protect information.  The only opinions on it can be political ones about his motives; there’s no basis in law or regulation to impugn him for using SAPs.

Keep in mind, Trump very quickly released the entire transcript of the Zelensky call, so it was never a case of using untoward classification to hide it from the American public.  It would have been the leakers his office was concerned about.

It would also explain a lot if some of the “SAP” material that went to Mar-a-Lago was “sensitive” not for U.S. national security, but for the agencies trying to sabotage Trump from inside his government, and even for Joe Biden and his family, and their foreign dealings.

The “SAP” connection just outlined wouldn’t apply to the formal Crossfire Hurricane records, at least not directly.  Those CH records would have been generated by the FBI:  the work product of federal agencies, maintained and classified under existing agency rules.

I also doubt, as mentioned in earlier posts, that there was much if anything classified TS/SCI that was related to Crossfire Hurricane per se.

There could, however, be CH files in the mix – whether they were removed in January or seized on 8 August – that were classified at lower levels than TS/SCI or using SAPs.

There remains a great deal to unpack about all this.  Based on the statements of government agencies, we know too little to be sure what kinds of materials were in the boxes at Mar-a-Lago.  As Byran Dean Wright says, it would be nice if we could trust the agencies (i.e., DOJ, FBI) to tell us the honest truth – but we can’t.  We manifestly cannot trust the Biden Oval Office to tell us the truth.  It lied through its teeth in its first statement about the 8 August raid on Mar-a-Lago.  Nor can we trust the mainstream media.

The picture that continues to emerge is this one.  Whatever is in those boxes, somebody really, really wanted to get it out of Mar-a-Lago and away from Trump.

We could cover 5,000 more words’ worth of territory and not leave anyone a whole lot more enlightened, so we’ll move on.

Notes on the end of the old order

Right after the 8 August raid, we noted that America’s foreign adversaries responded by doing unprecedented things – things they wouldn’t have done if they had thought there was still a shred of the old America still at the helm in the White House.

This section of the Ready Room offers a few observations readers may not have seen elsewhere.  Seemingly small developments demonstrate that Putin, for example, isn’t paralyzed by the “quagmire” in Ukraine, while NATO, if not paralyzed, is too complacent about it.

I continue to recommend stepping back to assess what’s actually happening, as opposed to imagining that day-to-day media coverage of events is a useful guide.  The media coverage of Ukraine is still overhyped and over-thematic – from both sides – especially in light of the reality on the ground.

Russia is bouncing rubble in Donbas and hasn’t been dislodged from it, but the cost of that is not a bug for Putin.  It’s a feature.  He’s achieving what I previewed months ago: hanging on and inducing – not forcing; inducing – continued transformation of the larger status quo.  Hanging on in Ukraine is definitely about Ukraine, but it’s about more than Ukraine too.  Putin read the West accurately before he invaded.  NATO is behaving fecklessly, not defending the preexisting order but adapting it to avoid direct confrontation with Putin.

NATO in Albania

One item of interest arose this past weekend, when Albanian security guards at a military factory in the town of Gramsh were injured while capturing two Russians and a Ukrainian who were apparently spying on it,

I’ll just append some comments I sent to colleagues via email:

Top guess would be it’s a [Russian] response to NATO refurbishment going on at an Albanian military airfield, as well as other developments close by that we can suppose without having specific reporting on (e.g., the military factory where the spies were caught being jolted into action for a NATO purpose).

The location isn’t optimum for Russian uses, at least in current conditions.  I don’t think the spies were there reconnoitering for a Russian move, so much as to check up on NATO.  Albania is a NATO ally and if the Russians want a stealth approach to the Balkans from the Adriatic, the smart play is through Montenegro, which has been under Russian influence for the last 25 years.

The European landscape keeps changing in reaction to Putin’s big move, and he keeps not being defeated.  The former Soviets were always being slowly defeated in Afghanistan, but they hung on there for nearly 10 years.

Tensions in nearby Kosovo between Kosovar Slavs and ethnic Albanians have been rising, with Serbia backing the Slavs (and Russia backing Serbia).  Kosovo expressed support for Ukraine early in the war.  This tension is a longstanding dynamic being exacerbated by regional instability.

Google map; author annotation.

And since NATO still has its KFOR peacekeeping contingent in Kosovo, it can be assumed, superficially at least, that shoring up a support chain for KFOR is connected to the airfield improvement in Albania.

That said, you’re already out of position if it starts to take new arrangements to shore up old commitments.  That, and not fatuous assumptions about the basis for NATO intentions, is the meaningful reality here.  The trend isn’t great.  While Western media proclaim Russia to be a dead cat cadaver, Russia’s latent influence keeps getting NATO to make new moves.  That’s not a sign NATO is in the driver’s seat.

Relevant:  Tony Blinken was doing a grip-and-grin in Kosovo shortly before that Washington Post backgrounder (link above) was published.

There’s a lot of speculation about limits to what Russia and Serbia could accomplish in ramped up maneuvers around Southeastern Europe, given that Russian can’t fly in and out of Serbia now.  But Iran can fly in and out of Serbia.  And China can too.

It’s always some damnfool thing in the Balkans.

Undiplomacy in the Baltic

Finland and Estonia are going to integrate coastal defense forces in the Eastern Baltic, basically to rig a trap for the Russian Baltic Fleet parked at the dead end of the Gulf of Finland.

To that end, Estonia is buying an Israeli-made coastal defense missile system.  OK:  so far, so what?

So Estonia’s Defense Minister had to decorate that announcement with this incendiary language:  “Estonia placed an order for the Blue Spear anti-ship missile in 2021 from the Israeli-Singapore joint venture Proteus Advanced Systems. Minister Hanno Pevkur said that after the delivery of the missiles, they will integrate the RBS-15 anti-ship missiles in the Finnish inventory into the MTO-85M coastal defense system, adding that the Baltic Sea will become NATO’s internal sea after Sweden and Finland join NATO.”

More email comments to acquaintances:

If old-school US leadership were still being exercised in NATO, that last phrase would never have been said, and the comments about the integrated coastal system would have been couched differently.

The threat of the entire Baltic being treated by NATO as an “internal sea” is obvious enough from the map, and at most should be a tacit threat to Russia whose potential would be realized as a last resort, if Russia keeps showing worse tendencies.  “Baltic as internal sea” should be a bargaining point, not a stated aspiration of NATO members.

Russia, with no warm-water ports affording direct access to the open oceans, is uniquely sensitive to maritime encirclement.  It really isn’t necessary or desirable to carelessly frame public comments as if that’s what NATO wants.  It’s inevitably destabilizing.  Russia can’t possibly live with it.

Security for NATO nations on Russia’s perimeter is perfectly consonant with fair, free access for Russia to the open oceans, as long as both sides are acting in good faith.  That’s what NATO diplomacy should always, always emphasize.

We used to have statesman-leaders who knew these things, and the leadership chops to advise our allies on them.

Malice in Mali

Another tweet thread unfolds the recent events in Mali, in Northwestern Africa, which have seen France pull troops out and Russia bring mercenaries, troops, and military aircraft in.

Click through for extended thread and references.

Iran, which has been courting Mali over the last decade, is coming in on Russia’s coattails.

China is already in the area, securing a Belt-and-Road client in nearby Senegal (conveniently furnished with well-placed coastline). 

Some contextual overview from January 2021. Google map; author annotation

Back in January 2021, Trump improved the general health of this American security perimeter by getting Morocco to take a favorable stance on the Abraham Accords, and recognizing Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara.  Unfortunately, as outlined in this article in December 2021, China has been having more success than the Biden administration just getting its phone calls answered in Western Africa.

Russia’s navy, meanwhile, has been performing feats of derring-do in the pirate-infested Gulf of Guinea (last link).

Russian destroyer RFS Vice Admiral Kulakov. File. Wikipedia: Ministry of Defense of Russia –


Naturally, an MQ-9 Reaper UAV was just shot down in Benghazi; something you probably didn’t hear about.

Foreign media are reporting that General Haftar’s Libyan National Army performed the shootdown.  The LNA holds the territory in Eastern Libya, so that’s quite probable.  Russia is Haftar’s principal patron.

Several NATO nations, including Italy, operate the MQ-9.

Another:  I’m trying to figure out what the upside is of publishing intelligence-quality information about replenishing U.S. ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), and swapping out their “Blue” and “Gold” crews, at sea.

The 23 August update helpfully clarifies that MV-22 Ospreys and Navy MH-60R Seahawk helicopters converging on a spot in the open ocean could be a sign of a vertical underway replenishment (VERTREP) for an Ohio-class SSBN.  Presumably the involvement of the Air Force C-17 Globemaster is at a decorous remove from the at-sea action.  But packaging the profile of the whole operation for quick identification by foreign intelligence services doesn’t seem like a brilliant move.

This one isn’t a true one-off either.  It’s a two-off.  Back in May 2022, submarine support vessels of the Military Sealift Command participated in an at-sea swap-out of Blue and Gold Crews for an SSBN, which was duly photographed and reported in some depth by the Navy and civilian news media in Kitsap, Washington.

All of this took place off the U.S. West coast.  It doesn’t seem 100% necessary to spill quite so much of our strategic triad’s guts in this manner.

Feature image: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Felix Garza Jr. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

7 thoughts on “TOC Ready Room 24 August 2022: Notes on the Boxes of Mar-a-Lago; the end of an old order continues”

  1. It may not be important, but I am obsessed with the original 15 boxes and feel they are the key.

    NARA seemed to miss them early on, as in Feb of 2021, iirc. How would they know what was missing unless they were part of shipment meant for NARA? There was a story that the GSA had accidentally shipped those boxes to MAL, but I only heard that once early on.

    In the letter from NARA to Trump’s lawyers recently published by Solomon, I got the impression when Team Trump returned them in Jan, they had no idea what was in them since they wanted to review the contents before they were turned over to the DOJ.

    If this is the case (misdirected), why hasn’t anyone said this and why would NARA think this meant Trump was holding out on more documents? [Tinfoil]…did someone deliberately send some TS/SCIF material to MAL on purpose to provide an excuse, if needed, to seize the Spygate/Russiagate materials we all assume he took?

    I am also struck that neither side seemed in much of a hurry to resolve this and am not terribly impressed with his lawyers.

    Nice catch on the Vindman impeachment whine about Trump hiding stuff on the more secure server. My old brain would never have dredged that up and I have noodled around some on what Spygate stuff would be SAP type stuff. All I could come up with was the idea that MI6 and some other European intel agencies appear to have had a hand in spying on Trump and that might be sensitive

    1. Thanks, BitterC. My apologies that your comment had to go to moderation again. I don’t know why it did, as one approval is supposed to get you “in.”

      It has seemed as if the boxes shipped to MAL were not indexed before they went, I agree. GSA packs them out, as I think everyone knows by now. There’s room for speculation about how that went down.

      If the Archives has been acting in good faith in its pursuit of the matter, the record so far suggests its original question arose from having a general inventory of number of boxes that went to MAL, but not a detailed inventory of contents. The interaction with MAL seemed to all be courteous and uneventful while that was being sorted out. The request from the Archives would have been for a detailed list of contents.

      At some point — possibly from the beginning — DOJ might have asked the Archives to look for the material DOJ already knew had been declassified by Trump. DOJ knew it because Trump sent DOJ the “binder” of declassified material in Jan 2021.

      I suppose, with some confidence, that DOJ wouldn’t let the matter rest, but wanted to get at the boxed material at MAL to see what it was in it, in part to verify if copies of the declassified CH/Russia/Spygate documents were there. Another part may have been govt-generated files on the Bidens’ overseas dealings.

      DOJ may well have been behind the Archives’ series of actions. As others have pointed out, the former POTUS has 5-12 years to render materials to the Archives, depending on what the materials are. There appears to have been no known “emergency” that would justify what’s been happening.

      I have to suspect DOJ and the Biden White House have a particular interest, and not just a generic one, in the material from MAL that Trump is said to have declassified while he was in office.

      As for the use of SAPs, the little Zelensky drama is one possibility. Another is that activities involving Stefan Halper may have been protected in a SAP by someone with authority (agencies would include ODNI, DOD and DOJ). We’ll see – maybe.

      On the TS/SCI material, if it was something DOJ or the Biden WH would take specific interest in, consider that it may have been about a circle of associates other than Trump’s. You don’t have to think very hard to realize who that could have been, if the current administration is extra-sensitive about it.

  2. The letters from Kim Jong-Un are arguably government records. But there was a NARA search in June.

    I subscribe to the theory that this was pretextual and the real purpose was to get records relating to Trumps RICO suit against Hillary, et al.

    And college football is back

  3. The Mar-a-Lago raid has all the intrigue and excitement of federal government record keeping in general. Someone checked the box on the form for paper towels when it was actually toilet paper that was requisitioned. Meanwhile DC prisons are full of political prisoners held unlawfully for misdemeanors. We have a POTUS in the advanced stages of dementia. We are hemorraghing money by the billions to corrupt Ukraine, our Congress has been sidelined and our FBI conducts nightly KGB-style raids against political opponents. Our DOJ has been gutted. Our election systems are broken, and Texas and New York are firing buses full of illegal immigrants at each other in the first volleys of the coming civil war..

  4. The public sharing of hyper-sensitive information by the Navy reminds me of what I know about the set-up of Pearl Harbor prior to its attack by Japan. “Hey guys, look what we are leaving exposed.”

    Putin has been extraordinarily disciplined about not responding to our invitations & provocations. But why give this information freely to all of our world?

    It fits in a bit to how NATO is re-acting, not acting. Even if we are acting to “set a trap,” it is a pretty weak trap.

    Or is it closer to treason? Have there been other acts that endanger our ability to defend the country (discourage patriots from enlisting and staying in the military through Woke nonsense, Covid vaccination requirements, etc.)?

    “No comment” is the correct answer here, to be sure.

    1. All good questions. I can’t help noticing how China is just right across the Pacific from the big performances recorded with boomers this year, and always has a clinical interest in these things. It feels a bit hard to explain.

  5. Why hasn’t Trump already released all this information to the public? It’s such an obvious question that I have been slow to ask it.If the authorities howl, shrug and assert, “It was my understanding that I had de- classified everything that I just released to you. My bad.”

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